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12th December
written by Mad Cow

Mad Cow’s Review Rating:

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material

Americans seem to love movies that are “based on a true story.” This movie is an excellent illustration of the fact that just because something is true doesn’t mean that we are getting the whole truth. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly and directed by Farrelly, this can almost be called a family project. Various members of the Vallelonga family are involved. The film is about Nick’s dad.

At the outset let me say that the acting is wonderful, the visuals great, the editing good and the movie moves along well. Ali and Mortensen,

Ali and Mortensen

in the lead roles, transform themselves. Yet the plot and dialogue leave something to be desired. This is a movie about race relations, and even if it is “history,” it follows that well-traveled American path of white-washing the past. (Pardon the pun.) Looks like a Canadian path too as it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, Lord of the Rings) worked for 12 years at the famous New York night club, the Copacabana as a bouncer. Sometime in the 1960s, when the club was being renovated he was laid off for two months and needed a job. Enter Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight), a Black classical pianist who is about to tour the U.S. and needs a driver.

If you adored Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner you will love this picture. Tony is a working class guy from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx who throws out drinking glasses that have been used by two Black plumbers who drank water from them when working in his apartment. He is a racist no doubt. He takes the job as Shirley’s driver because he needs it and would rather not take the other job offered, working for the mob.

Dr. Shirley lives in an elaborately decorated apartment above Carnegie Hall. He is dressed like a king and indeed sits on a throne. Other than his strange attire, stiff manner and elevated way of greeting guests, he is refined, polite and educated in every way. He is used to having employees that take care of his needs and doesn’t hesitate to tell them what they are. He speaks more than one language and his English is superb. During the trip we are given a “reason” why this guy wants to tour the Deep South when he could have made more money in large concert halls, but it comes across as a made-for-TV-Hallmark movie reason.

Tony does his job which includes protecting his passenger, as they move from town to town where Dr. Shirley performs at small theaters, country clubs and huge homes. The Green Book (according to Wikipedia The Negro Motorist Green Book, is a book that indicated commercial places that Black people traveling in the South could stay in the segregated south.  Tony is given the book when they set out. It gets little play in the movie.

What is astounding is how quickly Tony is converted, so to speak, from profound bigot to friend. No looks, slurs, dusting off things he’s touched. Instead, he turns Dr. Shirley into a more relaxed guy! What a pal. And they encounter some terrible racism. Wow! In some places they won’t even let Dr. Shirley use the toilets in the house or eat in the regular dining room. And worse! Gee whiz. Things were really bad back then, even the cops. But the film is quick to point out that not all cops are bad. Check.

The actual guys, Lip and Shirley

Mahershala has very long fingers and they are a delight to see when he is playing the piano. (He is not actually playing, though.) The music is great. He tries to get Tony to speak better and display better not-so-lower-class manners and helps him to write romantic letters to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home Two). Meanwhile Tony introduces Dr. Shirley to Kentucky fried chicken and popular 60s music by African Americans. I was unable to suspend my disbelief especially since we find out that Dr. Shirley grew up in Florida.

Dr. Shirley plays with a trio. Two other musicians, Oleg (Dimeter Marinao) and George (Mike Hatton) are traveling “with” them in another car. We almost never see them and somehow the three never seem to need to rehearse.

This movie has been nominated for FOUR Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy; Best Actor (Mortensen and NOT Ali); Best Supporting Actor (Ali and NOT Mortensen), and Best Screenplay. The acting nominations should have been reversed. I love Ali and can only hope that he made lots of money for doing this picture.

The movie has little depth or character development. It’s a story, clearly written for white people who want to feel good about not being racist.


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